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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 7

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Part 7 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post I began to consider what a congregation should do if it begins to think that God might be leading it to leave the PC(USA). On the basis of Ephesians 6:10-20, my proposed first step is:

1. Put on the whole armor of God.

I explained in some detail what this might entail for a church. Now on to the next steps.

2. Congregation leaders should communicate with leaders from other churches that have considered leaving the PC(USA), or have left, to learn about what was good and not good in their process.

For most of us, considering leaving a denomination leads us into uncharted waters. Yet others have navigated those waters before us. Some crashed on the rocks. Others made it safely through. There is much to be learned from the experiences of other churches.

3. Congregation leaders should communicate with the presbytery.

Now I know I’m going to get some negative comments about this suggestion. I know of many evangelical PC(USA) churches that find themselves in hostile presbyteries. I’ve heard of cases where presbyteries seek to remove pastors who even allow their churches to entertain a conversation about leaving the denomination, not to mention situations where pastors are in favor of leaving. Pragmatically speaking, it may seem foolish for a church to notify its presbytery about its considerations.

But, according to our Book of Order, presbyteries have the authority “to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members” (G-11.0103i). It is the rightful role of the presbytery to guide and support its churches, even when they’re thinking about leaving the PC(USA). Presbytery leaders should be mature enough and Christian enough to do this well, even if they strongly oppose a church’s dismissal. But even in a case when the presbytery leaders are not able to do what’s needed, I think a church should still be committed to acting rightly toward its presbytery . . . putting on the breastplate of righteousness, if you will. (Photo: The breastplate of Augustus, from the statue of Augustus found at Prima Porta.)

I do not have direct experience of something like I’m describing, so one could accuse me of being hopelessly naïve. Naïve I may be, but surely not hopeless! Yet I have watched a pastor friend who faced an analogous situation in his church. He had on his staff a director who worked with younger people in the congregation, primarily folks in their 20s and 30s. This director’s ministry was flourishing, much to the delight of my pastor friend. But his delight disappeared when the director starting talking about breaking off the group and starting a new church, not a PC(USA) church, I might add. The pastor made it clear to the director that this was not a good thing, in his view. But he didn’t fire the director immediately and demand that he never return. The pastor tried to walk the second mile with this director and the young adult group. When, in the end, they decided to leave the church and start a new church, the pastor refused to bad-mouth them or hamper their efforts. In fact, he believed that it was his calling to continue to pray for and support his former director and the new church he was planting. This was not easy for my friend, who felt plenty of grief and anger. But he tried to be faithful to God’s call.

A couple of years later, the new church that had broken off from my friend’s church was struggling along. My friend found himself in the strange position of being a mentor and encourager to his former director. Meanwhile, my friend’s church had a new young adult ministry that was thriving, stronger than ever before. His overall attendance and membership numbers were up noticeably, contrary to what one might have expected. I am convinced that my friend’s maturity in Christ, his graciousness, and his willingness to walk the second mile had everything to do with the blessing on his church.

I know there are other stories, stories that don’t have such happy endings, stories that illustrate human sinfulness and downright meanness. I have heard some of these stories, and they grieve me. But I believe that sometimes (often?) God calls us to do what seems foolish in terms of this world. Walking the second mile is pretty foolish. So is loving one’s enemies. The greatest foolishness of all is the gospel of Christ crucified. Therefore, if a church does what’s right by communicating directly with its presbytery, I believe that God will be honored by that action, and will find ways to bless the church, even if presbytery leaders are unwilling to respond graciously.

It will be rare, of course, for a presbytery to be enthusiastic about losing one of its churches. But, even so, there will be presbytery leaders who will be able to engage in a constructive process with a church. This is surely their calling as Christian leaders who are to imitate the servanthood of Christ. Moreover, if a presbytery is involved with a church that votes to leave, the involvement of presbytery leaders may very well pave the way for a church to leave with its property. Treat me with respect and I’ll be apt to treat you in the same way. Treat me with disrespect and I’ll be apt to return the favor. That reminds me of something someone said about treating others the way you want to be treated. Hmmmm. Maybe step #3 should read, simply: Treat presbytery leaders as you would like to be treated, or perhaps even, Do unto others as you would them them do unto you.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

4 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 7”

  1. J. Falconer Says:
    September 23rd, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Rev Roberts, Thanks again-every one of your post gets better & better. Our family sure has walked the second mile in a lof of situations. It is especially difficult when one is mistreated by Christians-especially when one is just trying to be helpful & kind. No hidden motives or agendas. Not wanting power,money,work, fame or recognition. Thank God you clarified this circumstance! One can feel alone in the water & thanks again for your insights on this matter. God Bless J & Thanks Again!!

  2. Ray Says:
    September 23rd, 2008 at 8:58 am

    I may be hopelessly naive as well, but I believe that the best possible outcome would be a denomination-wide effort to create two new denominations from what is now the PC(USA). I say this because I can envision four different scenarios that might be played out from where we are now:

    1) One side or the other is able to prevail by convincing the other side of its error, and reconciliation is achieved

    2) Nothing happens, and the PC(USA) continues to be in deep conflict as it spirals toward its eventual demise

    3) Churches feel called to leave the denomination piecemeal, and we end up with a scattered flock of former PC(USA) churches along with a much weaker PC(USA) that is still in conflict

    4) The denomination accepts that the doctrinal differences that divide us are too great to coexist within the same denominational structure, and the focus shifts from “winning the argument” to working together toward the creation of two new denominational entities

    Honestly, #4 sounds like pie in the sky to me, but if the opportunity for #1 has passed (and I think it has), then isn’t this the next best thing? It provides for the greatest continuity of mission, and it gives us the chance to retain our connectional ties with sister churches, even though we will be two smaller connectional groups.

    I come down on the conservative/evangelical side of this disagreement, but not all of my friends agree. Our session is split on this issue as well. It certainly won’t be a painless process, but I can get much more excited about being proactively involved in a solution than waiting around to help pick up the pieces after everything blows up.

    The people that are on the other side of this divide than I am are not my enemies. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and in some cases they are my close friends. In this disagreement I am not going to compromise my position on the nature, authority and interpretation of scripture; neither are they going to give up their positions regarding social justice, inclusiveness and the capacity of scripture to speak differently to the Church in different times and cultures.

    We’re deadlocked. So what is the most productive thing we can do? I think we agree to disagree, create two new denominations, and move on with the mission of the Church in the world…unencumbered by protracted battles over doctrine and philosophy (and property).

  3. J. Falconer Says:
    September 23rd, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Mark Roberts, Thanks for another deep, insightful post that covers more than one complex church situation. Hopefully, it will resolve peacefully as did the church situation you explained. Thanks again

  4. Jim L Says:
    September 23rd, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Mark -

    Thank you for continuing to write on this topic. Your last two posts, in addition to other recent events, have convicted me of my sin. With that said, I would like to apologize to those whom I may have offended in my comments here (and elsewhere). I ask for your forgiveness. The issue of leaving a denomination and wrangling over property is emotionally charged (notwithstanding the reasons for leaving). As sides are taken, it can result in impassioned and sometimes ill advised speech. In my case it involved ascribing what I believed to be underlying (bad) motivations to people and organizations without having spoken to those people and knowing their motivations or all of the facts. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”. It is far too easy to demonize the opposing side. That type of behavior can only lead to bitterness and alienation. It makes the long road of reconciliation much, much longer. Most of all, it is wrong and sinful. This does not mean that I do not think my church (Kirk of the Hills) should have left PCUSA and that we should own the property. I believe that is the right course of action and right disposition. However, it does mean that I still need to be respectful to those with whom I disagree. I do not really know the motivations of the individuals in the EOP or PCUSA. I can try to discern their motivation, but when times are tense, the risk is very high for being wrong - all the more reason to just stick with the facts.

    Jim Loughlin


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